Yesterday, Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle, and Ryan Grim of the Intercept published a blockbuster story about an NSA report concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. However, that story was overshadowed within about an hour by news that the U.S. Justice Department was charging the alleged leaker of that report.
Charlie Savage, New York Times:
The F.B.I. affidavit said reporters for the news outlet, which it also did not name, had approached the N.S.A. with questions for their story and, in the course of that dialogue, provided a copy of the document in their possession. An analysis of the file showed it was a scan of a copy that had been creased or folded, the affidavit said, “suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.”
The N.S.A.’s auditing system showed that six people had printed out the report, including Ms. Winner. Investigators examined the computers of those six people and found that Ms. Winner had been in email contact with the news outlet, but the other five had not. In a statement, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, praised the operation.
The Intercept issued a statement earlier today, effectively declining to comment, but it sounds like they failed to adequately protect their source. Scans of the documents published online as part of their story show printer marks that identify the document’s date, time, and printer used.
This isn’t the first time something like this has occurred. In 2014, the New York Times failed to adequately redact a presentation it published as part of the Edward Snowden cache of documents. Their error exposed the name of an NSA agent. In 2012, Vice disclosed John McAfee’s location because they left location data embedded in their published photos.
The complexities of classified documents and journalists’ occasional inexperience with the highly-technical requirements of handling them came up during John Oliver’s interview with Snowden, as reported by Alan Yuhas of the Guardian:
Oliver then asked Snowden not whether his actions were right or wrong but whether they could be dangerous simply due to the incompetence of others. The Last Week Tonight host claimed that the improper redaction of a document by the New York Times exposed intelligence activity against al-Qaida.
“That is a problem,” Snowden replied.
“Well, that’s a fuck-up,” Oliver shot back, forcing Snowden to agree.
“That is a fuck-up,” Snowden replied. “Those things do happen in reporting. In journalism we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.”
“But you have to own that then,” Oliver replied. “You’re giving documents with information that you know could be harmful which could get out there … We’re not even talking about bad faith, we’re talking about incompetence.”
The difference between the Times’ redaction mistakes and the Intercept’s is that the latter’s mission statement explicitly cites Snowden’s leaked documents as the kinds of stories they chase:
After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward with revelations of mass surveillance in 2013, journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill decided to found a new media organization dedicated to the kind of reporting those disclosures required: fearless, adversarial journalism. They called it The Intercept.
Based on what has been reported so far, the alleged leaker screwed up by emailing the Intercept at work, and using a work printer to create colour versions of the documents.1 However, it’s also looking like the Intercept screwed up by showing original scans of the documents to the NSA while investigating this story, and by publishing versions that can easily be traced back to the printer used.
Printing or scanning in black and white, especially at a higher contrast setting, will make the dots invisible. ↩︎